India’s Right to Information Act and the Trouble with Transparency

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image by REUTERS / Jayanta Shaw

When India passed its Right to Information Act in 2005, activists cheered. The groundbreaking law, developed over the course of a decade, allows citizens unprecedented access to civic processes–everything from agency documents to samples of materials used in government projects–and imposes strict fines on bureaucrats who don’t release information.

The law “has unleashed a surge of civic engagement in the world’s largest democracy,” writes Ralph Frammolino in the Columbia Journalism Review (Jan.-Feb. 2009). Thus far, Indians have requested hundreds of thousands of documents, publicizing irresponsible allocations of public funds, shutting down illegal construction projects, and quickening the pace of police investigations.

Still, Frammolino writes, it’s unclear “whether the law will live up to its potential as a game-changer by challenging the government’s systemic lack of transparency and accountability.” He points to the thousands of denied requests, the “growing mountain” of appeals arguing that they shouldn’t have been denied, and millions in uncollected fines.

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